Soldats is one of Fernand Léger's dessins de guerre, a series of direct works which he completed whilst serving as a sapper and later as a stretcher-bearer between July 1915 and December 1916. These impressions, snatched at moments of repose during periods of bitter fighting, constitute one of the most compelling of war records and for Léger mark a turning point in his artistic development.
Signed 'M.F.15 FL', Soldats may be precisely located and dated to having been executed in a 'maison forestière' in the wooded region of the Argonne in the Autumn of 1915. The depiction of two of Léger's fellow 'poilus' (the term given to the French infantryman who wore a traditional moustache) is typical of his revived interest in the subject. Along with a fascination for the power of the machine and the surface qualities of metal, it was his sense of cameradery with his fellow foot soldiers in the trenches which led Léger to substitute the abstraction of his pre-war works with a new-found emphasis on reality: 'I suddenly found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people... my comrades were miners, labourers, artisans. I discovered the people of France.' He realised that his style of pure geometric form and accentuated colour which he had developed within the milieu of the Parisian Avante-Garde was no longer appropriate. Authenticity was now essential and Léger's approach to how reality should be given pictorial expression was profoundly changed. As an observer, collecting documentation like a journalist, the images he recorded were of a world which was now 'grey and camouflaged', where every tone was forbidden.
The poilu became the central hero of his work and the most deeply significant of his war subjects, as is suggested by the fact that when granted leave in 1916 with the chance to paint an oil on a large scale, he produced 'Le Soldat à la pipe' (fig. 1.)
Rather than the isolated anonymity of Soldat á la pipe, Soldats records the uniformity of the poilus working and living together, and, as a subject it records the sense of group identity as well as the deeper idea of their unanimity.